Doc Franklin had been dead three days, and according to the funeral opinions that mattered most, he looked the part. Jordan didn’t agree. Staring out the window into the great inhalation of Saturday, late July, Jordan thought Doc more than dead; he thought him dissipated. Someone had tried to bleach the yellowed tobacco from his beard. Someone–no doubt the same one–had dressed him in a starched shirt, pressed pants. They had cleaned his glasses, combed his hair. They had done these things for the living, believing dignity was a well-groomed corpse. Jordan thought the dead don’t need bifocals and creased pants, the living do. He thought of comb, the iron, the super-glue to seal the eyelids shut and the starch. He thought of vinegar. Then piss.
When he was a child, Jordan’s mother had told him she named him after a river in the Bible. Since then his name had made him uncomfortable, as if a current of force and faith stretching back farther than he could imagine compelled him forward, drove him into the twists and turns in his life. It was only later, years later, when he too came to know the threat of his own impending funeral that Jordan would think of the ramifications of his name. Near dying, he found redemption in the fact that though the Jordan was a name of a river in the Bible, he, Jordan the man, had never seen it nor read of it, so there was no reason for that unknown river to continually haunt his steps beyond the beyond, whatever the hell that meant.
“Sons of bitches.”
“Did you say something, sweetheart?”
Like a cat on a cloud. Doc once told him that was how his mother entered a room, like a cat on a cloud.
“Just talking to myself.”
“Try not to talk too loudly. This is a funeral. Decorum. Carry yourself with dignity.”
She smelled like a Dollar Tree bottle of floral soup. Pursed lips purpled by the pinot in her glass judged him, kissed him over, found him wanting. A retired housewife living off the pensions of three dead husbands, the first of which was Jordan’s father (mechanic; laborer; failed estate). She was never, could never, would never be satisfied with Jordan, the only heir of her loins; her labial burden carried from crib to stoop to altar and back again with each successive procession of rings on pillows only to be further led into another man’s castle as she (mother; arbiter; Hecate) plied her wiles (those wiles which in youth surpassed the rancid floral bouquet of fresh death breath she exhaled now) in pursuit of yet another kitchen pantry to arrange, another Sunday brunch philosophy to espouse, another dinner party to successfully orchestrate. Without cause, Jordan thought of meringue.
“Doc Franklin would not have wanted dignity.”
“What do you know of the man? He was a doctor for heaven’s sake!”
The hiss of her decorum pregnant fury soured his dreams of pie. Lemons. Lemon drops. First box of candy bought at Doc Franklin’s store. Sticky sugar suck on his back molars commingled with the not biblically Eve forbidden fruit of candy when the order had been for “pickled olives and bring me back all the change.” Words sticking now in his mouth, peanut butter mouth, nutter butters, granular sugar and again Doc charging him for time but not asking for money after that first lemon drop and tearful return. His only truly good father figure. Dead.
“He studied Classics. I know that.”
“That’s why Brett put Latin in the eulogy. He was always such a good boy, that Brett.”
“The implication being I’m not?”
That stopped her mid sip. Wine sloshing to the edge of her glass, the threshold of her lips and back down again. Cheap wine. Skinny legs running fast; torn fishnets and combat boots and tears and Ashlyn confessing to Brett’s goodness through the open window that was forced on her, and months later Doc and he (Jordan) becoming her (Ashlyn’s) only solace as eyes judged measured and pursed lips judged and Brett was forgiven and Hecate (mother dearest) moved onto number three–Thompson?–and Jordan took the drive with Ashlyn, learning courage, reading the well worn, oft thumbed Marcus Aurelius of Doc’s bookshelf given in confidence and out of love, waiting through her icy pain as no one else would for goodness sake. The hidden implication being Brett is too good, even for white-trash.
“You never tried your hand at it.”
“I told you to wear the jacket and a tie. Why must you defy me?”
Defy: to openly resist or refuse to obey. Whose aural qualities morph into defile and that means corruption and that was what he did to her body, and Jordan knew it was not defiance but defilement which she raged against. His defilement of her. He, the constant living reminder of a single night of indiscretion leaving her to forever battle from street to street seeking the good name lost through passion and youth and that unforgivable Ferris wheel carnival romance that was his father’s triumph–eight cylinders of go fast Chevelle with rally stripe and all. In fighting the quicksand of unwanted motherhood she lost more inches of herself with every violent outburst becoming, quietly, unexpectedly, unwelcome and sullied. He was her doom. The drink act now complete. The wine passed the lips and travelled on to complete its course.
“I don’t like ties.”
He turned, watching her quiver. Dry lightning quiver as when the rough western Zephyrus goes riding across harvest fields, ruffling the land, rattling the dry corn stalks of summer, reminding those living few still believing in the Wind that the respiration continues, the great drawing in of breath continues. Reminding those who still believe we are no more or less significant than that breeze, that breath of air. Deep breath. Deeper breath. Breathe.
“Seems to me you don’t like much of anything these days.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Three years, no college degree, some road trip in between, then the plant to pour concrete. All for what? Nothing. Don’t look so surprised. Oh yes, your Doc told me all about the trips. You cannot keep your secrets from me, Jordan. I am still your mother.”
Her belief in secrets betrayed her unmitigated trust in history. The slow gathering of indictments between what she saw as insider information and her wanting to be apart of that same inside. And he, in youth, knowing too the power traded secrets had over her; learning to trade in secrets for himself, the economy of lies and false falsehoods which somehow untangled the double negative, slipped the mooring cleat of truth pier, drifted into the tide of false ebb and flow down away from her and then miraculously the ocean. He trusted the ocean; the immensity, the cornerless horizon at the beachhead that hid no pretenses. He yearned to stand up to his ankles, knees, waist, chest, as sand sucked from beneath his feet back into deep watery oblivion. He wanted to feel a riptide–a backwards sort of birth, Paul Klee and the Angelus Novus. But there was nothing her secrets, her history, knew of these things. Lies.
“I know that, momma. Lord don’t I know it.”
“When are you going to mature? When are you going to stop this foolishness and do something? It’s not decent being unmarried and living at home. No education, no prospects. People are watching us. They are always watching us.”
Never mind it was her letters and her phone calls that brought his return. Stopping first, as all prodigal sons must stop, at the corner store, Doc’s store, where he sat like a philosopher’s statue, chin on fist, reading another book from the uncounted stacks of books kept in back, through the jingle jangle of bells announcing Jordan’s entrance. Then him (Doc) looking up with watery eyes behind dirty glasses wiped clean only when lenses became too blurry to read, wiped by the same rag kept in his same pocket of the last sixty years for the same purpose. The rag, which has never been, to Jordan’s knowledge, washed or snapped clean. Never mind he returned for her, to save her, to care for her as there was the driven distance between home and hospital and endless waiting rooms of stifled coughs as her breasts were taken from her, as she recovered under his hand. No. Never mind those days. Those quiet, violent days when his mother became all vomit and diarrhea and he was all patience and conversations with Doc, the only voice of reason, the only voice that understood because he (Doc) once made the same choice, choosing to run a candy convenience store in a shit-hole town as his own father died from the finally caught up to him collected entropy of age. Yes. Never mind that year, that choice. Never mind.
“Look at Brett. The two of you were so close. Always so close, and now he has a wife and sells insurance. Jeanine has a college education too. Graduated from Sweet Briar College. That’s where she got her degree in teaching. Alice says we are lucky to have her in the school. Heart of gold. That’s what Alice says, a heart of gold and a sterling mind. Can you imagine that? They say Brett will run for City Council. He’ll win. Oh, he has my vote if he does run. I told him so today, this very day. Such a beautiful eulogy he gave. He always had a way with words, that boy. So eloquent.”
“How many glasses have you drank?”
“Don’t you worry how many glasses I have drank. It’s not decent to ask. And, don’t avoid my questions.”
Outside a darkness had begun to gather in the West. The auto procession was set to begin. Even now, listening to his mother rattle her funeral litany of envy, Jordan imagined the near final movements of Doc’s corpus. A dead thing. An empty thing whose soul–if there ever was such a thing–was off and gone leaving behind the wretched living. Corpus, corpse. The summer Ashlyn took to wearing black clothes and boots and black eyeliner and black lipstick because the Shore is small and nothing happens except the passage of time which feels like no time and small town teenagers, if they are not hunters, and if they are not athletes, and if they are not church goers, and if they are poor, and if their mother was cursed with beauty, and if their father was absent, and if that same curse of mother beauty falls to daughter and abscesses into malnutritioned sex appeal, turn to things dark as Ashlyn had done, dreaming Brett would save her, and so gave of her body as down payment to him only to be not saved. White, trash, unredeemed and pregnant; this was identity for Ashlyn. She lost on the investment. She lost her womb. Jordan lost as well, the silent partner. He lost money and friendship and love. Because he could not find it in himself to wash his hands clean of “trailer park indiscretions” as Brett called Ashlyn while riding shotgun in Jordan’s truck to deliver three hundred fifty dollars in crumpled fives and ones and tens with an occasional twenty to make things go away. Jordan could not play the role of Pilate. So Brett went on to the University of Virginia and Jordan tried to do the same, only failed. One conscience stronger than the other. One conscience more malleable than the other. One finding insurance, the other unsure if man can be redeemed. The western clouds began to billow and tower. There would be no crossing, Jordan River be damned.
“Looks like rain.”
“It won’t rain. The forecast didn’t call for rain, Jordan.”
And that was the difference between mother and son. She trusting to forecasts and he relying on experience. Each leading the other further from the center. Jordan turned from the window scanning the room over the top of his mother’s head. She pushing by to see the clouds through the window knowing full well, even in plain sight, she would not believe. Across the distances of carpet and polite conversations held in hushed puddles, he saw Brett raise a stock white coffee cup steaming in toast of recognition. He wore a suit and tie. Sweet Briar next to him, her stomach stretching the seams of her dress showing evidence of the sex act. Her heart of gold equals a successful womb. Jordan dreamt of the sterile coupling of their union: her flat back passionless duty; Rosam quae meruit ferat; pillows from a catalogue; central air and no sweat stains on the mattress. Sweet Briar writhing not in passion but in shame, wanting everything to be over, wanting it to all end while thinking, miraculously, of the lies her mother told. Afterwards there would be sweet tea in a pitcher on the porch. Alice said all the children love her for her sweetness. A rose indeed.
“You should go talk to him. Maybe he can get you a job.”
“I have a job.”
“You pour concrete.”
“Talk to him. I saw him look at you.”
“I have nothing to say to him.”
But it was too late. Brett had excused himself from the crowd, the herd, the politician’s admiring public. He began to close the distance between he and Jordan. Did he somehow believe himself crossing the gap of time? Was each new step a healing step, a healing salve into the still fresh wound in Jordan’s lost innocence? The distance growing less, the time distance expanding: Jordan thought of the window, of leaping out like a madman from the second story only to bound across the parking lot and into the trees like some hunted thing. But he held his ground. Quaking, he held his ground.
“Jordan. How are you holding up? I know you and Doc were close. Besides me, I think you were the closest person to him. He will be missed.”
A single word. A single name. The only sound, the only utterance Jordan could muster, could draw forth, draw up from somewhere deep. After so long a silence, only a single word would do.
“Still with the stoicism? Even today?”
Jordan stared. He felt the electricity of his mother’s hope next to him. For the first time he was aware of their great difference. Suited Brett and he, Jordan, in best pair of jeans and shirt with brushed boots and no tie. A chasm of difference, of station, and place.
“Your mother was talking to me about you earlier.”
“Said you are looking for work.”
“Jordan, that’s not true at all!”
Her whole body suddenly a power plant. Currents of fear and indignation capable of powering the whole town, the whole county, free of charge minus one conversation and a damn dead man.
“Well if you are ever looking for…”
The first peal of thunder and all heads turned towards them. Not them, the window. Every eye seeking the source of sound. The black sky in full effect. All eyes turned, even Brett’s. Not Jordan’s though. He had seen the rain already. All eyes turned and in their turning he discovered her. Ashlyn. A single drop, alone, away from the puddles of bodies. Alone, looking at him.
“Rain. The forecast didn’t call for rain.”
“That’s what I said. Didn’t I just say that very thing, Jordan?”
In her eyes Jordan saw everything, he remembered. He remembered the party in Watson’s fallow field, the whiskey drinking and the smell of cigarettes while Marcy Playground droned it’s lyrics on and on into the night. He remembered Brett, his wild look of determination, and Ashlyn, her innocent look of hope. He remembered her stumbling, clinging to Brett as he held another shot up to her lips, leading her to the back of his (Jordan’s) truck. He remembered the two months later, the fear in her voice as she confessed another growing life to him (Jordan) over cheap high-school cafeteria pizza. It was later, the conversation between two boyhood friends deciding the fate of a third then fourth, the pain began. It was the drive to her trailer; it was his drive with her to the clinic. She didn’t wear black then. Only later. She cried on the drive there, she cried on the drive back and yes, yes, goddamnit yes he had held her and cried as well. Then it was UVA and two years Brett’s roommate as he (Brett) drank himself into fraternity graces while he (Jordan) carried the load of two, not wanting his friend to fail again, not understanding he was failing himself. Then it was the great falling out, the great moment of “No more you son of a bitch” and fists and blood like a penny held too long underneath your tongue. It was all this and more. It was leaving because College should have been more, should have been harder, should have should have should have been the Lyceum but was far too bread soaked and light beer for that. Then it was the leaving school, the road trip and the harvest fields of Nebraska because he needed to feel his body work in the sun as Doc, his confessor, his should have been if only there was a God father suggested he do. It was the cancer of his mother, her pain, his pain, the pain of lost breasts, breasts whose nipples he had tugged at when nursing, gone now and the absurdity of the silence. The absurdity of Ashlyn’s silence, his silence all silence. It was everything contained, all at once, in an iris across the room.
Now he moved. He crossed the room, swam up current, and perhaps Brett’s eyes followed, perhaps more eyes than he knew. He crossed to her, against them all, hearing somewhere faint the sound of his mother’s voice, quavering, calling to him, calling perhaps across the Jordan. He heard her, but chose to listen to the sound of rain. A thunderous rain pelting down on the roof as only summer storms not forecast know how to rain. Had her hand been waiting? Waiting these fifteen years? It was smaller than expected, than remembered. He became aware of his callous, the roughness of his palms made rough by man-made stone. He took hers or perhaps she took his or perhaps they found each others.
“Your mother’s calling you.”
“What does she want?”
“She’s asking you where you are going.”
Then there was the rain. Rain in blue sheets coming down, coming down heavy. It was a soaking rain; a blue rain; the blue rain of baptism.
“Sons of bitches.”
And Jordan and Ashlyn moved.
About the Author: William Conable is an award-winning playwright and poet who lives in Concord, California. His most recent one-act, The Ties That Bind, was performed with the Quixotic Players of Berkeley. Other writing has appeared in WORK Literary Magazine, The Dead Mule and other publications. Originally from Virginia, Conable came west to shed the South’s moldy pretensions for something fresh. He is currently at work on several new pieces, including a novel; when not writing, he bikes in the East Bay hills and considers whether redemption is possible for anyone, and if so, why we care so much about it.
Artwork: Kim Thoman